They had it all. They wanted more.
While that may sound like the motto of America’s wealthiest 1 percent, it’s the tagline to “Satellite,” an indie film from writer-director Jeff Winner (“You Are Here*”). The film purports to be a contemporary fairy tale for adults—at least, that’s what two of the five producers say in one of two bonus features included on this DVD.
I can kind of see that, if I kick into analysis mode. I mean, fairy tales always have happy endings, and given the child voiceover narration—a child we’re certain has some connection to the film’s two main characters—that’s not spoiling a whole lot. Fairy tales also have some element of magic, and in contemporary times that usually translates into something atmospheric or tonal. Rather than playing out this romance realistically, Winner gives us a situation that’s exaggerated beyond belief, coupled with a gentleness that undercuts the typical edgy cynicism that characterizes most indie films about two people in a relationship. Oh, the slightly edgy indie alternative musical soundtrack is still firmly in place, but there’s something a little wide-eyed and innocent about both main characters. They could be lost in an enchanted forest, had their story been told in the 17th century.
Traditional fairy tales also include elements of transformation and the fantastic, and “Satellite” offers two characters who are transformed first by the magic of a fresh attraction, then the adrenalin rush of a naughty game, and finally by the way that the game gets out of control and threatens to destroy them both. Call it their Maleficent.
So yes, I can see fairytale elements at work here, but what I witnessed as a casual viewer was a typical indie about two emotionally remote people who, on the outside, were disaffected and suffering from malaise, and brooding on the inside. They’re square pegs in a world of round holes, and we get the obligatory scene with “family” to show how different they really are.
Tonally, Winner gave his stars a tightrope to walk, and they manage to avoid falling into a vat of clichés and stock reactions and give us characters that we care about. Kevin Sinks (Karl Geary) has a job that he’s worked hard to attain, but he stands out among the other sidewalk commuters because he’ll do things like stop to pet a dog—a small gesture, admittedly, but one that, with others, sets him up to be a bit of a free spirit. Watching him (uh, stalking, actually) from afar is Ro Mars (Stephanie Szostak), who, if she played her part with a little more sexuality, would be termed “sultry.”
But neither character tries to exude sex appeal, and here’s where “Satellite” breaks from most indie relationship pics. When they do finally couple, there’s nothing passionate or headboard-grabbing involved. It’s more of a spiritual and emotional coupling, and how fairytale is that?
This is really a two-character screenplay. Others are involved, but it falls to Geary and Szostak to carry the film . . . and they do. Szostak especially is captivating, the way that Audrey Hepburn managed to combine innocence and optimism with a sexuality that’s as natural and unforced as can be. We’ll be seeing more of her, and on bigger stages.
Sometimes the writing can be a little clunky, but the plot is enough to hold our interest. Lacking meaning in their lives, or missing that intangible, indescribable something, they agree to a game of dares—daring each other to try to do the things they’re most afraid of, or daring each other at a time when a fork in the road presents itself. And it starts with quitting their jobs. Then they sell things. And they steal things. And they go to parties where other disaffected people lacking meaning in their lives try to divert themselves.
For a time, familiarity, weak lines, and clichés threaten to destroy this film as much as an accelerated game does for their world. But in the end—and yes, endings are most important to fairy tales, no matter how much the characters drink, steal, cheat, or make love—we find some measure of satisfaction in the meaning that they finally discover together.
“Satellite” is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and, in this age of digital cameras, stands out as a throwback to an earlier time of heavy grain and imperfection. Whether that’s another romantic impulse to support the fairytale them or a limited budget, I can’t say. But because a hand-held camera is often used, I’d suspect the former. Colors in exterior shots are slightly muted, the result of atmospheric conditions, but like the grain you get used to it.
The featured audio is a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and when’s the last time you saw a film with such a modest audio? Like the video presentation, the aural aspect is totally pedestrian and pragmatic. The best I can say is that the filmmakers have done a nice job of cancelling unwanted white noise and ambient sounds so that they don’t wash the dialogue away.
Aside from a director’s commentary, the lone bonus feature is an under-10-minute talk between two of the movie’s five producers, who manage to digress quite a bit but ultimately come around to what we want to know about: the casting of Szostak. And the story offered by one producer makes the wait worthwhile. The commentary is fine, but I really wanted an interview with the stars.
There are a ton of bad or mediocre indie films out there, so when you encounter a film that proceeds with confidence and features charismatic stars that can act on the same level as A-listers, you have to take notice. “Satellite” may be far from perfect, but this little indie film is worth your time.